As the NSA snoopapalooza continues into its second week, much has been made of its vaunted Utah Data Center, a billion-dollar facility spanning 1.5 million square feet that can process data on the order of zettabytes, or 10^21 bytes. (That’s 10 to the 21st power. If you know how exponents work, that’s a hell of a lot of bytes).
While storing data can be burdensome enough – one estimate says the NSA will pay $40 million a year on electricity bills alone – analyzing it and figuring out what’s relevant is even harder. As “The Wire” creator David Simon wrote in a thought-provoking though overly-simplified piece on NSA snooping, “When the government asks for something, it is notable to wonder what they are seeking and for what purpose. When they ask for everything, it is not for specific snooping or violations of civil rights.” There’s just too much data to do anything useful with, he says. Obviously there’s still a lot we don’t know about the scope and capabilities of the NSA’s surveillance program (they don’t call them “secret agents” for nothing). But generally speaking, it is true that after a certain point, the more data you collect, the more additional data you need to gather meaningful insights from it.
But that’s if you use boring classical computers. What about quantum computers? Unlike classical computers, which rely on bits of information that are either 0 or 1 (or on/off), quantum computers rely on qubits which exist in a quantum state, allowing them to be 0, 1, or any number of infinite superpositions in between. This allows computations to be processed in parallel, and scientists say it’s theoretically possible to build quantum computers that are a million times faster than their classical counterparts. (For more, check out our interactive explainer).
Alas, we’re still in the research stage of the quantum computing revolution, and quantum devices have a long way to go before they could consistently outperform most commercial laptops. But that hasn’t stopped organizations like Google, IBM, and, yes, the NSA, from investing in the technology.
And what might it do with this technology? Read what Google has to say about the potential of quantum computing:
Assume I hide a ball in a cabinet with a million drawers. How many drawers do you have to open to find the ball? Sometimes you may get lucky and find the ball in the first few drawers but at other times you have to inspect almost all of them. So on average it will take you 500,000 peeks to find the ball. Now a quantum computer can perform such a search looking only into 1000 drawers.
Sounds like a great way to find balls in drawers. It also sounds ideal for identifying individuals amidst a vast amount of data. If NSA surveillance is like finding a needle in a haystack, then quantum computing could be thought of as a giant magnet.
Besides surveillance the NSA has another good reason to invest in quantum computing: cryptography. One of the more promising applications is its potential to crack some of the toughest encryptions known to man, the kind of stuff used to protect state secrets and financial transactions. If a key is developed by other nations, the NSA needs to be prepared to safeguard our own data. But the NSA could also go on the offensive, both against foreign nations and potentially against its own citizens for the purpose of surveillance. Today, we’re worried about the NSA accessing our phone records and Facebook status updates. What happens when they can access our bank statements or medical records?
True, they can already access this information with a subpoena or court order. But when an individual’s encrypted information can be mined, located, and then cross-referenced with a thousand data points – from what porn, er, websites you visit to what books you have on your Kindle to who you call and text, and all at the speed of a million MacBook Pros – there’s enormous potential for abuse.
But how worried should we be? According to MIT professor of electrical engineering and computer science Scott Aaronson, we can breathe easy, at least for now: “(Quantum) cryptography is a long way from practicality, despite anything you may have read otherwise. The only way that could not be the case is if the NSA had some gigantic crash program that was decades ahead of everyone else. I’ve talked to people at NSA and that seems very unlikely.”
So which is it: Are we on the cusp of a brave new world of computing and security like some media outlets breathlessly suggest? Or is it merely Day One of the quantum computing revolution? Aaronson compares it to the first computing revolution. “There were a hundred years between (computing pioneer) Charles Babbage and the invention of the transistor (in 1947). And we don’t yet have the quantum computing analog of the transistor.” And yet, when Congress passed the Patriot Act in 2001, few would have predicted that 12 years later over half of American adults would carry tiny computers in their pockets capable of collecting a staggering amount of data.
We may be 10 years, 50 years, or 100 years from the age of the quantum computer, but when that happens, we need to prepare ourselves, both with new legal protections and encryption techniques. Because a world where organizations can collect any piece of recorded data on an individual instantaneously may be just around the corner.